Bill Dauphinee: Low-Impact Logger

I first met Bill Dauphinee when we were both on a legislatively-appointed committee looking into labor and economic issues connected with the Maine woods. Bill, who has a sawmill in Willimantic, Maine was representing small sawmill owners. He didn't speak up much, but when he did, other members of the committee listened intently even though he spoke quietly. Bill, who was in his late 70s, is not in favor of big government programs or debt-financed businesses. This, of course, put him out of the "mainstream" of economic thought of most committee members, but because he was speaking from many decades of experience, people listened respectfully, nonetheless.

I was, at the time, writing a book on low-impact forestry. Bill told me to come down to the parking lot when I dropped him off as we carpooled. I looked over at his old pickup truck and was surprised to see a placard that said "Low Impact Forestry." I decided I had to go visit his operation and see how he managed his woods.

More than a year later, my wife Sue and decided, on the spur of the moment, to take a hike up Borestone Mountain, which is not far from Willimantic. We went with Ron Locke, a forester from Sebec Maine and a friend of Bill. After touring the mountain and enjoying its spectacular views, we decided to stop by and visit Bill and his wife Ruth.

We were greeted by more beautiful views as we pulled up to the Dauphinee home. Their yard is covered with flowers with numerous bird and squirrel feeders. Bill and Ruth were eating an afternoon snack in their shady screened porch. They welcomed us in and we chatted awhile until Bill offered to take us on a tour of his operations, which we gladly accepted.

Bill first took us to his mill. In 1971, Bill had noticed that pulp prices had not gone up in a dozen years, but the cost of his tractor and other equipment had doubled during the same time period. He knew there was a demand for lumber, so decided to build himself a mill.

Much of his equipment was very old. As he showed us around, he joked that he was the youngest thing there. This was a bit of an exaggeration, as the main engine running the mill, a diesel, 471 GM 2 cycle engine, was built in the 1940s.

He has rigged the mill up so he can operate it alone. He does not want to deal with employees or government red tape. The old equipment is very ruggedly built and rarely has serious problems. With it he mills out boards and timbers, all of which he sells readily, without having to advertise. He also sells firewood, and has an antique wood splitting rig set up at the mill. He bundles up his slabs and sells those for firewood as well. Even the sawdust gets sold for bedding for animals.

Bill mills out both his own wood and special orders of other people's wood. He only runs his mill part time, and estimates that he might make 50-60 thousand board feet a year.

Bill's passion is in his woods. He has somewhere between 800 and 900 acres of woodlot that he manages. A few hundred acres of this was in his family--though he only owned a quarter share. He bought the full share from his brothers, then started buying more land when he had extra money.

Bill was a child of the Great Depression, and in northern Maine, the Depression lingered on after it was officially over in the rest of the country. Land was cheap. One could, at times, buy land for less than a dollar an acre when people defaulted on their taxes.

Bill learned from his father to manage selectively, conservatively. Bill's goal is to encourage vigorous growth, by cutting suppressed and dying trees. He does not try to drastically change the species growth of his forests. "I never told my woodlot what to grow. Whatever quality grows, I can use at the mill." When I last talked to him, he was cutting dying "juniper" (also called tamarack or larch), which, he thought, he could make into deck planking.

The lot he took us to was a stand that was mostly second-growth pine on a good site. The forest was very well stocked with some tall, medium-sized trees. Ron estimates that there could be 60 or 70 cords of wood per acre growing there. The rest of Bill's land probably averages around 30 cords to the acre. In contrast, the average acre in Maine has 16 cords to the acre.

I teased Bill that I didn't think anyone had done any cutting on this lot--it had too much wood on it. "Hey Lansky," he shouted, "come over here. Here's a stump." He showed me stumps throughout the stand, but it was clear that he likes to have a lot of trees in between the stumps. "If I'm standing on a stump and see another one, I'm cutting too hard," he joked.

He showed me very large stumps--some nearly three feet in diameter. These were from big "wolf trees"--trees that had grown in the open with no competition and had lots of branches and large crowns. The trees actually were not that good for lumber or pulp.

"Why do you cut these big trees down? Why not just girdle them?" I asked.

"I do it for the challenge," he responded.

Bill, who is nearly 80, is not a big man. At least in size.

Bill yards his wood out with an old Oliver crawler with a front end loader and a winch. He rarely uses the winch, but he uses the loader a lot to handle logs and avoid lifting. Safety is very important for Bill. He doesn't rush, but takes time to study each situation to avoid damage to either himself or the woods. He only operates when the ground is frozen or hard. I saw no evidence of rutting or serious compaction.

He used to load pulpwood onto a trailer to take to pulpmills, but this year he will hire a truck with a loader. He says he wants to get out of the trucking business. But he has no interest in having anyone else do cutting in his woods.

"You can't find good cutters you can trust. There are good cutters out there, but they have more work ahead than they can do, because they are in demand."

Bill does allow someone to tap some of his maple trees for syrup. There is no money transaction, however. Bill and Ruth get a share of the syrup.

I asked Bill what will happen when he gets too old to do the work.

"I don't know. That's in the future. All I have is this moment. I'm doing now just what I like to do. I'd rather be here in the woods than just about anything. I love my woodlot."

Bill is not too impressed by the industrial management going on around him. Many years ago, when he climbed Borestone with Ron Locke, Bill pointed down from the mountain where the forest seemed to stand out with its growth in contrast to scruffy land all around. That healthy-looking forest, Bill joked, was his.

The industrial forest has been changing hands at a rapid pace. Bill thinks management is getting worse with every change, and it does not make him happy. "The wood is worth more than money. The land is worth more than money," he said.

He recalled that back in the Depression, people might work for a dollar a day. "We were able to buy a few groceries, make our own beer, and get along just fine. People were happier back then," he told me. "They had more time to visit, and might go out two or three times a week to see friends. Now people have more money and less time. And the money isn't enough. Contentment is one of the most valuable things a man can have. Some people think they can get it by buying more. I get it by wanting less."